Demystifying Physics and Fighting Discrimination in STEM: Julia Bauer ’23 Named Smith Scholar
Few things anger Julia Bauer ’23 more than hearing a version of this story:
“I don’t think you’re cut out for this,” an educator tells a student interested in medical, computer science, physics or other STEM careers. “Have you considered something a little less challenging?”
Many women, people of color and members of other underrepresented groups have such a story to tell. In Bauer’s case, the opposite happened when a Davidson College professor encouraged her to pursue physics.
Propose a challenge, and Bauer is hooked, whether it’s performing at the highest academic levels to running a 16-mile trail race to ensuring that low-income students get the support they need.
When she graduates with honors Sunday, it will be as a physics and political science double major. She’s also the Class of 2023’s Smith Scholar, with plans to become a physics professor striving to make the field more inclusive.
The college’s W. Thomas Smith award honors a graduating senior for outstanding academic achievement, community service and leadership. It models scholarships like the Rhodes and Fulbright and pays for the student to pursue a master’s degree at a university abroad.
Her dream to study abroad—thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic—will happen this fall when she heads to Scotland to get her master’s degree in theoretical physics at the University of Edinburgh. As part of her master’s degree, she will conduct thesis research with theoretical physicists at the prestigious Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics.
After that she plans to head to Northwestern University, where she’s been selected to pursue a doctoral degree in applied physics.
“The first word I’d use to describe Julia is that she is a ‘physicist,’” said Physics Professor Mario Belloni. “The second is ‘brilliance.’ That, and the tenacity she has for learning and conducting research in the field that she loves is part of what makes her special.”
Belloni said she combines that brilliance in physics with a genuine caring for others through her work in the physics department and the college.
“It’s a rare combination of somebody who’s exceptional in their field,” he said, “and has been able to make real and significant change at Davidson.”
Tight Family, Strong Work Ethic
Bauer grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, as the only child of a single mother.
Her mom, Louise Schneider, is a social worker who supports children and teenagers. Julia’s grandmother, Mary Ann Berlin, is a retired nurse who often helped with childcare, drove Julia where she needed to be, and paid for extra-curricular activities.
Bauer went to private schools thanks to scholarships, her mother’s hard work, and her grandmother’s supportive presence in their lives.
“My mother worked her butt off to make sure I had the best education possible. She made so many sacrifices to make that happen,” she said. “I come from a line of really strong women—I’m very lucky.”
She’s extremely close to them. She and her mom share an affinity for trail running, once crossing the finish line of a 16-mile race holding hands. Their home is pet friendly, with two cats and three pugs from a dog rescue group they work with.
Bauer entered Davidson as a Belk Scholar. She’d planned to major in political science or history then go to law school. But an introductory physics class offered a new challenge and sparked her interest in the field.
In the summer after her first year, she conducted research with Belloni as part of the college’s RISE program. RISE is an intensive summer research fellowship program for students historically underrepresented in the sciences. That includes those from minority and low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their families to go to college. One of the program’s goals is to prepare students for future advanced research opportunities.
In fall of 2020, she took a senior-level quantum mechanics class as a sophomore. She’d always been a top student and while she understood the complicated physics, she was often frustrated by the math equations she didn’t have the background to solve.
“Dr. Belloni made a deal with me,” Bauer said. “He told me, ‘If you’re willing to do the work, I’m willing to help.’ And he did. He spent hours teaching me the material in several calculus classes and filling in the gaps of what I needed to learn to succeed in the major.”
Belloni said he reached out when he realized that she was struggling. He believes too many promising students veer away from physics because they don’t get enough support. That’s often because of the misperception that someone is born a physicist—or not. It’s something he and his colleagues work to ensure doesn’t happen at Davidson.
“It struck me that she was already excellent in physics—how much better would she be when she had the mathematics background?” he said. “I helped, but Julia put in all the work. She taught herself Calc. 1, Calc. 2 and Calc. 3 during the winter break. It was a long winter break that year because of COVID, but still…”
Love of Learning
Professors who’ve taught and conducted research with Bauer describe her insatiable interest in learning.
“It’s fun to watch. You can see the ideas turning over in her head—she gets a little frown line between her eyebrows, which resolves into understanding,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Shelley Rigger. “Her questions are the best. She is pushing all the time to deepen her knowledge and pull insight out of whatever topic she’s studying.”
Bauer served as a student representative for the college’s Educational Policy Committee for three years. Rigger said her extensive research about how low-income students access opportunities provided valuable data used to make improvements to existing support structures at the college.
That includes the Student Government Association’s Davidson Textbook Initiative, which works with the Lula Bell’s Resource Center to ensure that students of all means have equitable access to books and class materials. Bauer co-founded the initiative with close friend and roommate Hana Kamran ’23.
“Like many Davidson students, Julia wants to change the world,” Rigger said. “Where she differs from many is in her pragmatic approach to that task. Her contributions to the college are extraordinary.”
Bauer has served as a physics tutor at Davidson. Her already extensive resume includes work as a policy intern for the American Institute of Physics in Washington, D.C. In that role, she authored bulletins and news briefs to explain the science—and role of equity—of proposals to policy and law makers.
Bauer said her Davidson professors have inspired her to demystify physics, a field still inhabited primarily by white men.
“I believe with my whole heart that a lot of STEM teachers do students a disservice in their approach to the field,” she said. “Physics is not magic, and it makes me crazy when people are told that they can’t do something—because there’s this stereotype of the genius physicist that still exists.”
That stereotype is among the reasons women earn only 21% of bachelor’s degrees and 17% of doctoral degrees in the field. Bauer hopes to help change that.
“The history of discrimination is worse in our field than a lot of others,” she said. “I see my role as an aspiring educator stressing to students that they can do it.”